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Do Gospels Contradict
Each Other?


    Why Didn’t Jesus Know?

    Q: Concerning the second coming of Christ, Matthew 24:36 has Jesus saying, "But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." In John 21:17, after Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter responds, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

    How can you reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements concerning the omniscience of Christ?

    A: The question of what Jesus knew and when he knew it still occupies the discussions of theologians. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Alexander Jones reminds us that in the Incarnate Son there are two planes of knowledge. One is total and divine. The second is limited and human.

    As Jones expresses it, direct communication between the two is established only by Jesus’ "infused knowledge." This knowledge is given Jesus in proportion to the needs of his redemptive work (e.g., knowledge of his divinity and messianic character). Jesus did not need the knowledge of the time of the world’s ending or the destruction of Jerusalem to accomplish the work given him.

    Beyond that, Jones notes the constant practice of the Son was to claim no knowledge beyond that which the Father had instructed him to use.

    According to The Collegeville Bible Commentary, the Son’s knowledge is put in a category of its own—above that of men and angels. But as man, Jesus knew only what he had learned in the normal human way and those things which were revealed to him for the needs of his mission. Apparently the time of the final manifestation was not among those things.

    Nor did the disciples need to know. Even in his glorified state, after the Resurrection, Jesus refused them that information.

    What Did Jesus Mean?

    Q: Acts of the Apostles 1:6-7 says: "When they had gathered together they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.’" Please explain what this means.

    A: Both William Kura, S.J., in his exegesis of the Acts of the Apostles in The Collegeville Bible Commentary (The Liturgical Press), and Henry Wansbrough, O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson), say much the same thing about these verses.

    Kura suggests Acts 1:6-7 should be read against the background of Luke 12:35-46; 17:20-37 and 21:7-9. Remember Luke is the author of Acts, as well as the Gospel according to Luke. In these Lucan passages we find the parable of the workers who are urged to be ready at any time for the coming of the master because no one knows when to expect his return. We also hear Jesus saying the time of the coming of the Kingdom cannot be known—it "is already among you." And lastly Jesus urges the disciples not to be deceived by the cries of doomsayers that the end is near.

    According to Kura, Luke uses the question of the apostles in Acts to indicate they still do not understand what Jesus meant by the "Kingdom of God." Later on, in Acts 2:3, he will show God’s promise was about the coming of the Holy Spirit rather than an earthly kingdom.

    The message is much the same as in the Gospel—don’t try to guess what cannot be known. Focus on the power of the Spirit as a sign of living in the promised final day. Jesus’ disciples should use their power and the time left to them to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth.

    Wansbrough says the passage finds the apostles still looking for a worldly messianic kingdom, and they will not understand what Jesus has been saying until they receive the Spirit. The message is: Stop looking for the imminent second coming of Christ. And the Kingdom is not to be confined to Israel. Acts will later tell how the gospel was spread to Judea, Samaria and even Rome (the end of the earth).

    Why Sign Ourselves at the Gospel?

    Q: My son wants to know: What is the story behind the symbols of making the Sign of the Cross on our forehead, mouth and heart just before the Gospel is read?

    A: When I was a young boy, we were taught to sign ourselves the same way the priest does when he begins to read the Gospel—on the forehead, lips and heart. We were told to say at the same time, "Jesus, be on my mind, on my lips and in my heart."

    The signing of book and self is a reminder of the respect and love we should have for Christ and his word. We should always have in mind the word and example of Jesus, keep him close to our hearts and be ready to proclaim him and his word to the world.

    Balthasar Fischer, in Signs, Words and Gestures (Pueblos), puts it this way: "The Sign of the Cross on forehead, lips and heart also has to do with this Lord who is entering the assembly and will now speak. Everyone present is saying as it were, ‘Now I must pay attention. It is my Lord who speaks. Since my Baptism I have belonged to him body and soul, in my thoughts, words and feelings.’"

    In other words, we are to be completely and entirely devoted to Christ.

    The Cross in the Sanctuary

    Q: A friend of mine stated that a priest told her every church was required to have a crucifix on the wall behind the altar. I have been in several churches of fairly recent construction and this is not always true. In some of these churches the risen Christ is displayed. I do not find either way to be troubling; I am just curious as to what is correct or if both are acceptable.

    A: I could find no requirement that there be a crucifix on the wall behind the altar in every church.

    The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (#270), however, does require that there be a cross, clearly visible to the congregation, either on the altar or near it.

    The Appendix to this Instruction, for the dioceses of the United States, says, "Only one cross should be carried in a procession in order to give greater dignity and reverence to the cross. It is desirable to place the cross near the altar so it may serve as the cross of the altar. Otherwise (if there is another cross already in the altar area) it should be put away during the services."

    These documents also warn against multiplying the same images and symbols because in doing that the images and symbols lose their impact. Thus, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, written by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, tells us, "A symbol claims human attention and consciousness with a power that seems adversely affected by overdose. For example, the multiplication of crosses in a liturgical space or as ornamentation on objects may lessen rather than increase attention to that symbol."

    The bishops’ committee also urges, "A cross is a basic symbol in any Christian liturgical celebration. The advantage of a processional cross with a floor standard, in contrast to one that is permanently hung or affixed to a wall, is that it can be placed differently, according to the celebration and the other environmental factors."

    The iconography (statues and images) in newer churches, just as in older church buildings, is influenced by many things. Some examples are national and ethnic groups who use the church with their particular patrons and forms of piety, the religious order staffing a parish, or the saint or mystery for which a church is named.

    Thus, it should not be surprising to see a mural or statue of the risen Jesus in a church named for the Resurrection. The same would be true of scenes and statues in a church named for the Ascension or Annunciation.

    But when I talked to a liturgist, who is consulted on the art and architecture for many new churches, he knew of no general trend to include statues or pictures of the resurrected Christ in all churches. Churches use different art or hangings behind the altar and in the sanctuary area.

    Prayer for Safety From Vikings?

    Q: When I was very young I remember my mother saying a litany after the rosary, and in that particular litany I can remember the words, "From the scourge of the Vikings, Lord, deliver us."

    It has been 50 years and none of my brothers or sisters say they remember, but I am positive I do. Can you tell me if there was ever such a litany or is this some kind of a dream I had?

    A: I cannot identify the litany you recall. The petition sounds like the plea of a people threatened centuries ago by Viking raiders. Perhaps it was part of an old Litany of the Saints. There is, you know, a whole set of petitions in the Litany of Saints where we ask to be delivered from various evils. For example, we pray, "From anger, hatred and all ill will....From lightning and tempest...From the scourge of earthquake....From plague, famine and war, etc.; O Lord, deliver us."




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